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Fragments of an Autobiography in a Stuffed Cabbage

I was born in a cabbage. A strange farce. And yet, this fantasy isn’t all that bizarre, if one considers my Hungarian origins and my Aubracian destiny (the Aubrac being my landscape of predilection in France’s Massif Central, the Gallic epicentre of the stuffed cabbage). I ate my first stuffed cabbage before I had ever heard the lovely tale of my birth in a cabbage patch, and well before I could ever have wished to, or been able to, reflect upon its veracity. I long remained oblivious to the true madness of this gentle thought. To be born in a cabbage: the innocence of greenness, the comfort of the protective layers of leaves, the assurance of tranquil growth, the infinite powers of the earth – this birth took place towards dawn, under the sign of dew drops suspended between moon and sun. An origin ecologically correct, though botanically monstrous. A cabbage-birth that attenuated the nefarious effects of the fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, an event that sheds light on the lovely gesture of offering a bite of cabbage to newlyweds. But is such a birth comparable to the destiny of a stuffed cabbage consigned to stew slowly in a pot? Stuffed cabbage: the alchemy of the cooking, the comfort of the heat, the seduction of the tenderness, the glory of the perfection, the sincerity of the tradition, the rhetoric of the invention. The psychology of the stuffed cabbage is profound, as is its gastronomy.

Who am I? Where do I come from? The answers to these questions are dependant less upon a place and more upon an idea, an image, a dish. The very first time I appeared on French radio was on Alain Veinstein’s show, Du jour au lendemain, to speak about my book Mirrors of Infinity (1992), a study of landscape and metaphysics. He kept the surprise question for the end.

– Do you have a secret garden?
– No.
– Not even during your childhood?
– No, really.
– Really?
– Listen. Have you seen Alain Resnais’ film, Mon oncle d’Amérique?
– Yes.
– Do you remember the last scene, which begins with a long shot of a part of a city in ruins, followed by a middle shot of a wall covered with graffiti, followed by a very beautiful, nearly abstract close-up, consisting of a bit of graffiti covered with lichen? Well, that’s where I was born: the South Bronx.

Origins easily disappear. My father – to whose memory I wish to dedicate this fragment of a memoir – survived, in Hungary, one of the most horrendous events of history, the Holocaust. He lost everything: home, family, city, country. Even his name. I’m convinced that only when survivors can laugh, with that mad laughter that both wounds and heals, can they seal their victory. A more-than-pyrrhic victory, a victory over nothingness, a victory over Death. And yet, as we can well imagine, this maddest of laughs is rarely possible. However, there are all sorts of monuments: certain may even be hidden in the corner of one’s mouth, like a bite of superb food, or like a raging toothache. Such monuments are no less sincere, no less profound, because of their smallness and hiddenness. Perhaps the greatest monument of all would be miniature, portable, ephemeral. A culinary monument, for cuisine brings joy and life from the jaws of death. A stuffed cabbage as monument – why not!? For cuisine is a prime site of memory, and the mouth a topology for all that is essential – eroticism, language, taste, dissent, violence – source of life, source of death. Otherwise stated, according to good dialectical form, the story that begins as tragedy ends as farce.

And the farce is me. Arriving in America after the war, after the camps, after the loss, my father wished to change his name, thus Laszlo Weisz (SZ) became Leslie Weiss (SS). I had always found this to be a curious choice, and yet I never got a satisfactory explanation to this strange ‘Americanisation’ by changing a Hungarian name to a German one. (In fact, both Weisz and Weiss are forms of Weiß, with the former more common in Hungary, and the latter in Germany.) Especially after the Holocaust. Perhaps this transformation of SZ into SS was a manner of marking, of scarring, of bearing the wounds, the loss, the uprootedness, the death – all in silence, like a tattoo. The S accentuates by attenuating, being the scar of the wound Z. It reveals the Z a contrario. Or is it I who activate the meaning of the dreaded Z? What can this SZ mean? What might the Z, that rarest of letters, add to a name? For Victor Hugo, it’s lightening, it’s God. However for others it’s the hated letter, which throughout European history was often threatened with elimination, as Pascal Quignard reveals in his Petits traités (Vol. I, Gallimard/ Folio): ‘Appius wished that the letter z be abandoned. He thus hoped to save the mouths of men from death.’ And this for two reasons: because the z is the terminal, eschatological letter, and because in pronouncing it we imitate the clenched teeth of a dead man. Remember that exclamation from King Lear (II.ii.65): ‘Thou whoreson zed!/ Thou unnecessary letter!’ But why? In his book entitled S/Z, Roland Barthes explains that in Balzac’s novel Sarrasine (and here I condense): ‘The Z thus falls through a trap-door…it cuts, it strikes out, it streaks [zebre]…it is the letter of deviance…the wound of lack…S and Z thus exist in an inverted graphic relationship: they are the same letter, seen from the other side of the mirror.’ True indeed! The Z is superfluous. The Z is mysterious. The Z is dangerous. It’s the letter of the zigzag, source of uncertainty. It’s the evil double, violence itself inscribed within words, an exterminating, eschatological letter. And here I am, Weiss (SS) speaking of the disappeared Weisz (SZ) – the return of the repressed incarnate. 

That said, the name totally suits me. Weiss, Blanc, White. Indeed, one of the most beautiful objects in the world is a blank sheet of 8.5 x 11 inch typing paper, homologue of my name, worthy of the most beautiful landscape. White indicates all the pleasures of my existence: the sheet of writing paper, the tablecloth, the bedsheet, museum walls, even the cosmic void of the Milky Way – all leading to reverie, inspiration…and anguish. But if I love Barthes’ book, it is especially for its first sentence: ‘It is said that by means of ascesis certain Buddhists can see an entire landscape in a fava bean.’ I love landscapes, I love miniatures, I love fava beans, magic or not, to the point that I once formulated – in a little text on marionettes and dolls (a vast category which for me includes the fava bean that represents the infant Christ hidden in the galette des rois and the Twelfth Night cake) – the Principle of the Fava: ‘We have no need to animate these objects, we dare not even touch them, for it is they who manipulate us.’ The vegetable garden is indeed a magical place, and we shall never finish discovering its secrets…

As for me, I see my landscape, if not my destiny, in a cabbage. A fine beginning for a culinary autobiography. In the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook (1954), Toklas, the friend of Gertrude Stein, criticises American cuisine of the epoch: ‘The French never add Tabasco, ketchup or Worcestershire sauce…’ Several years before my birth my father’s aunt, who lived in the Bronx, taught my mother to cook Hungarian stuffed cabbage as my father liked it (a basic recipe, made with beef and rice, but without the typical Hungarian addition of sour cream, so that the dish remained kosher) by adding an ingredient that I have never once encountered in a Hungarian recipe: Heinz ketchup. (I would like to digress slightly and insist on the fact that the typical French prejudice against ketchup is based on pure ignorance, for a true homemade ketchup can be as complex as any chutney, a veritable culinary catalyst.) My father was pleased. Years afterwards, my mother improved on the recipe, by adding, among other savoury things, both the requisite sour cream and the somewhat unusual Worcestershire sauce. My father was still pleased. Such is my paradigmatic stuffed cabbage. A stuffed cabbage to love, a stuffed cabbage to transgress. Transmission, transgression. I can’t seem to dissociate the two. That said, I should insist that my mother, a wonderful cook, transmitted to me very, very little of her cultural heritage, mostly lost with all else during the war. Even this ‘Hungarian’ recipe wasn’t exactly destined for me. Such recipes – where taste, tradition and love meet – are at first created for an in­dividual, before being carefully transcribed for posterity. Such is what is called a ‘family recipe’ (recette de grand-mère). But for the lack of living grandparents, this one was indirectly transmitted through my paternal aunt. Not much of a recipe. But in any case, rather than exchanging recipes, my mother and I exchange techniques, utensils, foodstuffs, tales. Rather than dishes, she continues to teach me the means of adapting, understanding, loving. Not recipes, but sensibility. Not cuisine, but receptivity.

In one of my first articles, ‘Psychopompomania’, dealing with glossolalia in modernist poetry, I noted that the name of Antonin Artaud’s mother, Euphrasie, means in her native Greek, ‘beautiful locution’ (euphrasia) or ‘to rejoice’ (euphrainein), the latter most probably etymologically linked to the word ‘frenzy’ (phrenisis). Such a frenzy well describes the relation between Artaud and his maternal tongue, whence the folly of his poetry. Coincidentally, the name of my mother – who also lived through the Holocaust, and who like my father lost almost everything (but how many languages need one speak to survive? Polish, Russian, Yiddish, Lithuanian, German, English…certainly not Latin!) – Is Eulalia Barbara: this opposes ‘beautiful language’ to a type of logical argument. (In medieval logic, BARBARA is the first term in a mnemonic system to recall the syllogism of the form AAA.) Such an opposition may well explain certain of the rhetorical strategies of this autobiography, and of my thought processes in general. But Barbara also obviously evokes barbarism, impropriety, incorrectness, solecism; literally, the use of sounds and words foreign to a language. Such is the condition of all language in diaspora, the malin génie of the most striking contemporary writing. To love barbarisms is to love montage, hybridity, fusion – the preconditions of all inventivity, literary, culinary and otherwise. My mother had never – up to this moment – seen her entire name in print: Eulalia Barbara Prus Raczkowska-Weisz. (In becoming Lala Weiss upon her arrival in the New World, she sacrificed five As and two Zs.)

I have before me the coat of arms of the Prus clan, which the Raczkowski family had the right to bear: on a simple field of azur appears a crux imissa with a double traversal curiously lacking the right half of the inferior traversal. A truncated cross, nearly zedified. The escutcheon supports a helmet from which appears an armoured hand yielding a broadsword, the entirety surrounded by stylised leaves which demand very little imagination to be seen as those of a Savoy cabbage. A bit of anamorphosis would do the trick. For if one finds things as banal as leak stems on coats of arms, why not cabbage leaves? In 1690, the great specialist of the heraldic arts, Philipp Jakob Spener, seeking the relations between botany and blazonry, noted that certain people named Choux (cabbage) or Chaux chose for their coats of arms plants of the Brassica family. Were they any less happy than those who had the right to the Ficus, the Lilium, the Carduus, the Spina, the Trifolium, the Nymphea…?

Who am I? The escutcheon leaves are decorative, the leaves of paper melancholic, the cabbage leaves emblematic. The blazonry leaves mark a certain annihilating nostalgia, the leaves of paper evoke creative anguish, the cabbage leaves incarnate an ever-increasing joie de vivre. I am this past that I escape. I am what I write at this instant. I am what I shall cook tomorrow. A cabbage leaf may serve as guarantor of a name, swaddling of an infant, continuity of a tradition, metaphor of a book… or of a shroud. Leaf of life, leaf of death.

This text is an excerpt from Autobiographie dans un chou farci (Mercure de France, 2006), as translated by the author.

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